Nutrition is one of the foundations of survival and healthy living. Early life nutrition is especially important for the healthy growth and development of children. However, having the time, energy, and ingredients to make nutritious home cooked meals may be difficult for a lot of working parents and quick service restaurant meals and prepackaged foods can be a convenient choice for fast and easy family meals and snacks. Mass produced and processed foods are often perfected in food labs and these companies use boardroom strategies to increase their marketability. The famous combination of salt, sugar, and fat is an effective recipe for addictive foods , and people often eat more than the recommended serving size. While some salt, natural sugars, and healthy fats can be healthy to have in your meals, most junk foods have high amounts of sodium, lots of sugar or high fructose corn syrup, and saturated fats. And to make snacks visually appealing to children, they often contain food dyes, artificial flavours, additives and preservatives. So how does the consumption of these foods impact the health of our kids?
Probably the most well-known consequence to eating junk food is weight gain. Eating habits, sedentary behaviour, eating in front of a screen, lower intake of vegetables and higher intake of snacks, fast food, and sugary beverages are all associated with higher rates of childhood obesity . Many of these foods are often high in calories and low in nutrients. As a result, these “empty” calories can contribute to weight gain and micronutrient deficiencies at the same time . This can have negative developmental impacts, as a variety of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals are needed for physical growth, neuromotor development, healthy immune function, and mental development .
The increase in weight gain can also play a role in body image perception and low self-esteem, which can have an impact on mood. A higher intake of sugar is also suggested to affect children’s moods .
We have all heard of the hyperactive sugar rush, followed by the crash. Sugar is easy to absorb and to break down into smaller sugar particles such as glucose. Glucose is an important energy source for us, and the body values it highly. If you eat a lot of sugar, there will be a fast spike of glucose in the blood stream, and your body will respond by storing as much of it away and as quickly as possible. In its haste, the body can over-store the glucose, not leaving enough behind to carry out optimum functioning. This can lead to a feeling of fatigue, or crash. Although the idea of the rush and crash are debated, sugar intake has been linked to greater levels of fatigue and less mental alertness within one hour of ingesting it .
The brain is a complicated structure, and cognition can be influenced by dietary choices . A higher intake of high fibre foods like fruits and vegetables have also been linked to better brain function in children . However, a high intake of fast foods, packaged foods, and sugar sweetened beverages at 3 years of age have been related to less academic achievements at 10 years of age .
While junk foods can have a negative impact on brain function itself, part of the impact is likely the act of choosing to eat junk food instead of a more nutritious food. This removes the opportunity of ingesting important nutrients. For example, a child’s developing brain needs high amounts of the omega-3 fatty acid docosahexanoic acid (DHA) . DHA is one of the main ingredients in fish oil, but junk foods are unlikely to contain significant amounts of DHA. A low intake of polyunsaturated fatty acids like DHA in early childhood years can cause an impact on the development of the brain and thinking patterns .
Although still a controversial topic, there are concerns that artificial food dyes or colours can influence child behaviour . More specifically, these dyes are suggested to exacerbate symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and eliminating them may have benefits . Although further testing is needed to understand this mechanism, it is possible that children are more susceptible to the effects of additives and food preservation compounds . Since the bright colours are more often found in child-targeted treats and snacks, the load of compounds may be higher than adults. Additionally, children are still developing their organ systems, so metabolic and detoxification systems are still maturing .
The rise of childhood obesity has played a role in higher amounts of chronic illnesses that are usually seen in adults. Childhood obesity is associated with conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, and cholesterol problems . It also increases the risk of developing a condition known as metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a combination of increased abdominal weight, blood sugar issues, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and can cause fatty liver disease .
The early years of childhood are important for long term determinants of health. A focus on nutritious and balanced meals at home can prevent a myriad of concerns. That being said, it is with regular, repeated, and high amounts of these foods that cause these consequences. Educating parents and children about healthy food choices should be a priority, however, enjoying a sweet treat now and then is a happy part of life. Talk to your naturopathic doctor, if you have questions about a good nutrition plan for your child.